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Humble prose and twang

The Riffbroker's erudite lyrics are buoyed by catchy power-pop melodies

The Riffbrokers are the intersection between early Stiff Records and the poppy twang of the Traveling Wilburys and Wilco. Photo credit: Facebook

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One of the greatest joys of being a music critic -- including the ability to work tipsy, in my underwear, on my front porch -- is getting the opportunity to stump for bands. Because of the need for variety in this fine rag, and the eagerness to spotlight something novel coming to the South Sound, there rarely comes a time when I get to reiterate my love for a local band that just doesn't come around here that often. On top of that, there's the heartbreak of breathlessly talking up a band that ends up disappearing, which is an element of the sometimes flaky artist and the exhaustion of making music that I've had to swallow. Bands vanish, sometimes without reason and, if we're lucky, we're left with an artifact in the form of the music they left behind.

It's because of this fickleness, and my bottomless desire to convince people to like what I like, that I'm grateful for the Riffbrokers. Having formed in 1999 and weathered the transition from their home in Boise to Seattle, it seems like I can rest easy with the knowledge that they'll stand the test of time. (They're sometimes referred to as the Unsmashable Riffbrokers, which seems to check out.) They had been around and making great music for over 10 years before I finally heard them - and began incessantly pushing them -- back in 2010.

My reasons for loving the Riffbrokers represent the microcosm of the ideal way to be introduced to a band. First: I instantly clicked with their sound. Made up of husband and wife duo Nick and Heather Millward on guitar and bass, Chris Cline on lead guitar, and Dirk Lebsack on drums, the Riffbrokers create a sound that functions as the collision between the early Stiff Records canon -- which includes the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, and other punk and New Wave icons -- and the twang-inflected power-pop of the Traveling Wilburys and Wilco. Nick Millward's Costello-esque, nimbly nasal vocals also fit neatly into my wheelhouse, which made me a sucker for whatever they were serving up.

The second part of their process in winning me over was the subtly moving, lyrically evocative words that drape their songs like muddy notebook pages. Getting past my initial, visceral joy at the Riffbrokers' sound, I was then able to dive into their lyrics, which capture a humble profundity. These are the words of a person who works for a living, coming home to spend a quiet life with family and friends, finding time for band practice, and stealing moments to write down snatches of prose that are erudite and blue-collar in equal measure.

I first admired the Riffbrokers for being able to make wordy lines like "I'm like the Yukon, not a province yet/you're my Alaska, now the sun won't set," and "My eyes are everywhere, it's punitive/sometimes the talks don't work/I can't get rid of it" somehow form hooks unto themselves. That ability has continued on their most recent LP, last year's Facing Away From It. The album is typically packed with catchy melodies that buoy story songs like "Pedro Pan" and subtly tragic character studies like "If My Guys Were Here."

Facing Away From It also features a cover of "And Your Bird Can Sing," which nods to the Riffbrokers' most elemental influence in the Beatles. It's a perfect choice of song for the Riffbrokers to tackle, finding common ground in that era of the Beatles, with their shared economy of words and melody, accessing a soul-satisfying power in the quick and potent exposure of the heart and brain.

The Riffbroker's, w/ Bes, Thrown-Out Bones, Double Creature, 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 1, $5, The Valley, 1206 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253.248.4265, thevalleytacoma.com

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